Each day there is more media on the human trafficking scourge in America with heart-wrenching stories about women, men, and children who are forced, defrauded, or coerced into exploitation. Whether it is the pimped child, the indentured migrant laborer, or the domestic slave, the headlines are always the same “victim saved” and “offender arrested,” but this narrative masks the reality of the situation. Despite being arrested, few traffickers are ever convicted of human trafficking offenses and those who are typically receive “slap on the hand” sentences. All the while, the majority of trafficking survivors are re-victimized and criminalized through arrest, prosecution, detention, and/or deportation. These victims are rarely “saved” as the media stories suggest, but rather remain “disposable people” in the shadows of heartland America.
I first became aware of this reality gap while sitting in an audience of anti-trafficking policy makers, law enforcement officials, and service providers, listening to Frank Wolf (R), member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia's 10th district. There were multiple news agencies recording his speech and taking down notes. He was touting the human trafficking prosecution of Peach Therapy, an erotic massage parlor located in my hometown, midway between my mother's home and my high school. Unbeknown to most in the community that surrounded it, the business was a front for a full service brothel. According to the official Department of Justice press release, the massage parlor proprietor, Susan Lee Gross, was bringing girls from South Korea to New York, and trafficking them down I-95 to my Virginian suburb, for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.
Representative Wolf portrayed the conviction as a prime example of the efficacy of his federally-funded efforts to combat human trafficking locally. However, prosecuting erotic massage parlors engaged in human trafficking is often described as “playing a game of whack-a-mole;” shut one down and another will pop right back up, sometimes in the same location or under a different name. Victims are often afraid to cooperate with law enforcement and legal representation for offenders will exploit their credibility gaps, such as undocumented foreign national status, drug use, or coerced co-offending. If law enforcement gets too close, offenders will strategically “sell” the business and change the name in order to evade arrest and prosecution, bringing investigators back to square one.
Not for a lack of trying from law enforcement, but less than .01 percent of human traffickers are ever convicted for their crimes.
The need to combat human trafficking is one of the few issues that all politicians, Republican or Democrat, can agree on. For example, in the race for presidency, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina (to name a few) have all discussed the need to address the human trafficking scourge in the United States. However, legislators, law enforcement, and victim service providers need to be forthcoming regarding the lack of efficacy of current anti-trafficking efforts. Without an evidence base of support, passing new pieces of costly legislation may not be the answer. America needs to understand that behind the politicians touting arrests for public accolade and the click-worthy headlines on federal prosecutions, human trafficking enterprises continue to flourish in plain sight.
With human trafficking especially, law on the books has yet to translate to law in action.
Author Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio.